The Atchafalaya National Heritage Area encompasses 44,000 acres of wetlands and hardwood forest around the Atchafalaya River Basin. Totalling over 1.5 million acres, this is the largest swamp basin in the country. The basin has a rich history of biodiversity, not to mention a cultural history that carries over into the current era.
Choctaw for "Long River," the Atchafalaya River basin covers an area larger than the Florida Everglades. Within that space there are over 85 known species of fish and more than 270 species of birds that call the area home, including the largest nesting concentration of bald eagles in the southern central United States.
Recognized for the unique ways that the river and water has shaped the cultural history of the region, the wildlife refuge is part of the federally designated Atchafalaya National Heritage Area, which spreads through 14 parishes of Louisiana. It is composed of swamps, bayous, marshes, lakes, canals and levees, and water's incredible influence on life in the Atchafalaya region is evident. Even today, very few permanent homes exist in the river basin. There are cabins and weekend homes, but there are relatively few communities of permanent buildings.
The sparse population, combined with the rugged forested and wetlands-rich interior of the basin, give the area a feeling of an old part of the bayou that time has left behind. From a purely recreational point of view, the Atchafalaya Basin feels like pure Louisiana bayou, and to experience this portion of the state feels completely unique. One of the largest contributing factors to this feeling is the basin's limited accessibility. The best way see the basin continues to be by boat. Much of its flora and fauna stick to the wetland basin, including stands of large cypress trees with trunks that are several feet in diameter and floating birding and hunting cabins that are anchored in isolated areas of the river basin.
There are relatively few roads that travel through the basin, and the hiking trails tend to be primitive with little in the way of improvement. But this lack of commercialism is a stark contrast to natural areas nearer to big cities, and it conveys a sense of genuine authenticity.
Those looking to head into the Atchafalaya should begin at the visitor center, which is located at 2022 Atchafalaya River Highway, Breaux Bridge, LA 70517 and open daily 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Here you'll find displays and informative brochures, and guides are on hand to answer questions and offer suggestions on traveling into the refuge.
Visitors looking to head into the area on foot will find some of the most accessible trails concentrated around the Indian Bayou area. These include the Indian Bayou Loop Trail, and Oxbow Wildlife Viewing Area among other trails of varying length. To get even further off the beaten path, several wildife viewing areas and trails traveling old forest roads are near the Big Alabama Bayou area and Section 120 Road.
Those wanting to stick to their cars may be interested in looking into the Atchafalaya Water Heritage Trail, a self-guided driving trail through the basin.
And for those looking to experience the area by water, there are numerous boat ramps throughout the region. One of the most accessible is located just behind the visitor center. Several outfitters also run swamp boat tours throughout the area.
The Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge is a sprawling area that seems to offer relatively little in the way of accessibility, but it is that lack of rapid change and the continuation of the landscape and culture influenced and shaped by the actions and activities around the river basin that give the area an authenticity and make searching out the heart of the basin a completely worthwhile and rewarding choice.